The Atomistic Machine View of the World

R. C. Lewontin proposes a third approach to analysis.

From Biology as Ideology by Richard Lewontin, Harper Perennial 1991. p 14 - 15.

We have become so used to the atomistic machine view of the world that originated with Descartes that we have forgotten that it is a metaphor. We no longer think, as Descartes did, that the world is like a clock. We think it is a clock. We cannot imagine an alternative view unless it be one that goes back to a prescientific era. For those who are dissatisfied with the modern world and dislike the artifacts of science, the pollution, the noise, the industrial world, the overmechanized medical care that seems not to make us feel better much of the time — for people who want to go back to nature and the good old ways, the response has been to return to a description of the world as an indissoluble whole that we murder to dissect. For them, there is no use in trying to break anything down into parts because we inevitably lose the essence, and the best we can do is treat the world holistically.

But this holistic view is untenable. It is simply another form of mysticism and does not make it possible to manipulate the world for our own benefit. An obscurantist holism has been tried and it has failed. The world is not one huge organism that regulates itself to some good end as the believers in the Gaia hypothesis believe. While in some theoretical sense “the trembling of a flower is felt on the farthest star,” in practice my gardening has no effect on the orbit of Neptune because the force of gravitation is extremely weak and falls of very rapidly with distance. So there is clearly truth in the belief that the world can be broken up into independent parts. But that is not a universal direction for the study of all nature. A lot of nature, as we shall see, cannot be broken up into independent parts to be studied in isolation, and and it is pure ideology to suppose that it can.

The problem is to construct a third view, one that sees the entire world neither as an indissoluble whole nor with the equally incorrect, but currently dominant, view that at every level the world is made up of bits and pieces that can be isolated and that have properties that can be studied in isolation. Both ideologies, one that mirrors the premodern feudal social world, and the other that mirrors the modern competitive individualist entrepreneurial one, prevent us from seeing the full richness of interaction in nature. In the end, they prevent a rich understanding of nature and prevent us from solving the problems to which science is supposed to apply itself.




Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.


There is a Facebook group.


You will regret following me on Twitter here.


Enter your email address:

A TinyLetter Email Newsletter

About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


Syndicate: RSS1.0, RSS2.0
Links: RSS1.0, RSS2.0


© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


@20, by Paul Ford. Not any kind of eulogy, thanks. And no header image, either. (October 15)

Recent Offsite Work: Code and Prose. As a hobby I write. (January 14)

Rotary Dial. (August 21)

10 Timeframes. (June 20)

Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out. (April 10)

Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley. (April 7)

Welcome to the Company. (September 21)

“Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?”. Forgot to tell you about this. (July 20)

“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. An essay for TheMorningNews.org. (July 11)

Woods+. People call me a lot and say: What is this new thing? You're a nerd. Explain it immediately. (July 10)

Reading Tonight. Reading! (May 25)

Recorded Entertainment #2, by Paul Ford. (May 18)

Recorded Entertainment #1, by Paul Ford. (May 17)

Nanolaw with Daughter. Why privacy mattered. (May 16)

0h30m w/Photoshop, by Paul Ford. It's immediately clear to me now that I'm writing again that I need to come up with some new forms in order to have fun here—so that I can get a rhythm and know what I'm doing. One thing that works for me are time limits; pencils up, pencils down. So: Fridays, write for 30 minutes; edit for 20 minutes max; and go whip up some images if necessary, like the big crappy hand below that's all meaningful and evocative because it's retro and zoomed-in. Post it, and leave it alone. Can I do that every Friday? Yes! Will I? Maybe! But I crave that simple continuity. For today, for absolutely no reason other than that it came unbidden into my brain, the subject will be Photoshop. (Do we have a process? We have a process. It is 11:39 and...) (May 13)

That Shaggy Feeling. Soon, orphans. (May 12)

Antilunchism, by Paul Ford. Snack trams. (May 11)

Tickler File Forever, by Paul Ford. I'll have no one to blame but future me. (May 10)

Time's Inverted Index, by Paul Ford. (1) When robots write history we can get in trouble with our past selves. (2) Search-generated, "false" chrestomathies and the historical fallacy. (May 9)

Bantha Tracks. (May 5)

Tables of Contents